The Re-Indianization of the East Indians of Belize

By: Dorian Barrow, Ph.D.
Florida State University

Descendants of Asian Indians comprise approximately 3% of the population of Belize, which, as you know, is the most culturally diverse nation in Central America. We consider ourselves to be both a part of the Caribbean and Central American, even though we have the smallest population (350,000) of all non-island sovereign states in the Americas. This, in part, is a reflection of our history as a British colony that developed in a Spanish-dominated region. The 2010 population census showed that the majority of the population remained of mixed ethnic origin being either English Creoles or Spanish Mestizos. Other groups, however, include not only the indigenous Maya, Garifuna, Europeans (English, Dutch, Germans and Spanish), and Chinese, but also East Indians, the latter still being referred to in my neck of the woods by that century old pejorative label of ‘Coolie’.
The East Indians of Belize are descendants of indentured laborers who began to arrive in the country after 1838 to fill the labor gap caused by the abolition of slavery. They initially came to Belize from India, via Jamaica, to work on the sugar plantations and over the years were joined by other East Indian immigrants. Between 1880 and 1917 when indenture-ship ended, some 3400 East Indians migrated to Belize under that program.
Today, they are distributed across a wide area in many villages and towns, primarily in the Corozal, Toledo, Stann Creek and the Belize Districts, and are said, by some scholars, to be “relatively well integrated into the Belizean population” (Minority Rights Group International, 2013, p.2) and by others as having been “almost completely intermixed in terms of marriage and culture” (Belmopan City On-line, 2013). But very little is known about the intricacies of this intermixing or acculturation process of Indian Culture with the ‘cultures’ of the place, Belize, to which these people immigrated.
A group of us are currently involved in a study where we are attempting to explore the attitudes of the East Indian population towards India and some of its cultural traditions, that is, their knowledge, feelings and behaviours towards Mother India and things ‘Indian’ – its social reality, their sense of being dislodged from that reality, and the extent to which there are efforts to network with reference groups in Mother India.
At this stage of the research, some preliminary analyses suggest that East Indians of Belize have very little indigenous, intimate knowledge of Indian culture; do not feel, in any meaningful way, dislodged from a motherland that has long been a very advanced civilization of great traders, magnificent cities, advanced in science, technology and mathematics, and now on the path to becoming a ‘super-power’. But most importantly are not now, or have they in the past, made any serious efforts to network with reference groups in Mother India.
One of the implications of these findings is whether the academic community should persist on categorizing the East Indians of Belize as being ‘relatively well integrated into the Belizean society’, or as ‘completely intermixed in terms of marriage and culture’ vis-à-vis as being almost totally assimilated into one or the other of the two major groups – Creole or Mestizo – that now comprise the evolving plural society of the modern Belize.
Another is, what is the new wealthy immigrant Indian Community – the ones who now have almost taken over completely the retail merchandising trade in Belize – doing about this state of affairs, that is, to what extent are they thinking about the “Re-Indianization” of the East Indians of Belize? I really cannot think of a more noble project than one like this one, whereby they can give back to Belize and at the same time honor Mother India and fellow East Indians in the diaspora.
For starters, two things comes immediately to mind. First, they could in the short term, organize and sponsor a series of lectures in Indian History (I am told that Dr. Cary Frazer is an expert resource in this area). Secondly, on a longer term basis, establish an Institute of Indian Culture, where the diaspora can go to learn things like Hindi, the official language of India. Other things like trade missions and opening up our tourism to that large catchment of wealthy Indians could follow.
Any comments, point or counter-point, on this issue would be welcome, especially now, the Year of the Conference on East Indians of Belize.

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